Welcome to episode 20 of BiblioTech – the podcast about emerging technologies for academics.
Instant feedback is extremely valuable to a teacher, especially in larger classes. Classroom response systems or clickers help make this possible. By asking a multiple choice question to the class, a teacher is able to tell if the class is grasping the material.
In this episode I look at the pros and cons of clickers. Yes, they can help teachers and students, but they can also be easily abused.
Lectures, as you know, are both easy and very difficult at the same time. They’re easy because the infrastructure of university campuses is built to support them, students expect you to deliver a lecture once a week, and most of us learning to create and give a lecture early on in our careers. But lectures are also difficult. They require a tremendous amount of preparation, especially the first time you give it. It’s really hard to build in much interaction in a lecture, especially when the class is huge. Since university infrastructure and the basic expectations of how a course works in incredibly hard to shift, many instructors are attempting to change their teaching within the boundaries of the lecture structure. Many are adopting new tools and techniques to make lectures more interactive, more engaging, and more demanding for students. This is where Classroom Response Systems, otherwise known as clickers, come in.
Clickers are essentially remote control devices that interact with a base station that sits at the front of the room. The base station collects information from the activity of the remotes and relays it to an attached computer. Instructors can create multiple choice questions in powerpoint that flash up on the screen as they lecture, and the base station will record all the students’ answers to that question. It then lets instructors show the results to the class right away. If you’re picturing an “ask the audience” segment of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, you are entirely correct.
Clickers don’t disrupt the natural flow of the traditional lecture-based class; they just allow instructors to check in with a class as a whole as they go along. A lot of instructors are very keen on the use of clickers, for good reason.
I have seen clickers used in fairly simple ways to quite dramatic effect. Rather than simply dispel myths and misinformation with walls of verbal facts and studies, Some instructors incorporate the ability to get instant feedback into hooks and cliffhangers in a lecture.
One religion instructor uses clickers this way; he presents an issue in the lecture, ask students what they think is true and asks them to vote on the right answer using clickers, and then he displays that information to the class. He uses that data to shape how he talks about the truth of the matter. He uses students knowledge and the myths surrounding religions to inform his presentation of them, without putting any individual student on the spot with the wrong answer. His goal is in part simply to keep the students engaged in his already engaging lecture, but he also wants to use clickers to help him demonstrate very clearly that the misinformation exists, and show his students that they aren’t alone in being wrong about any of it.
In an intensely practical use of clickers in the hard sciences, I’ve seen several instructors use clickers as testing mechanisms on the critical functions that make or break a concept. They will cover that sticky point in a lecture, and do their best to get the information across as clearly as possible. Instead of immediately moving on, they way they once did, now they use a clicker test to gauge understanding, right after the piece of the lesson is complete.
If the results of that test show that the point is not clear to the majority of students, then the instructor knows there’s been a failure to convey that sticky point, so she stops to go over it again. She now knows, as she’s teaching, that we’ve reached a critical point of misunderstanding, and the students know it too. It’s a moment where everything stops while they work to get back on the same page.
If most of the class get the question right, the instructor will continue. But it also gives them a sense of how many students are starting to fall behind. At this the point the instructor can stop, point out the error, note that ten or fifteen or twenty percent of the class isn’t clear on this point, and prepare additional support for them outside of the lecture. TAs can fill in, and can provide additional tests and materials covering this particular detail, because the instructor now knows that that additional support is required.
This use of clickers is a practical and efficient way of letting students know whether or not they’re keeping up in a class well before the first test. Before clickers, these instructors really had no way of being sure that their messages are clear to students until a gradable assignment or test is due. And students don’t have the luxury of assuming they understand something they actually don’t. This use of clickers is a kind of early warning system, both for students, and for an instructor seeking to improve their teaching. You can imagine that, after years of these kinds of clicker questions, instructors will start to see which of their teaching methods work better than others, and can reshuffle their approaches based on that information. It’s a very quantitative way of seeing the impact of modules, methods, and individual lectures.
This simple technology can be an interesting and powerful addition to your lectures.
But on the flip side, it can also give your students something else to easily cheat and game to get extra grades with minimal effort. I’ve seen many instructors use clickers fairly lightly, with the main purpose being pure attendance taking. Clicker data knows what answer comes from which student, so technically you can use clickers to monitor whose devices are actively in the room when you conduct the quiz. Natural attendance-taking, no? The danger of this approach is that students are smart and figure out a way to fool the machine. They tend form groups who take turns as the emissary your class, who then becomes the note-taker of the week and pushes the buttons of six or seven clickers to make it look like all his friends are present. Sneaky, dishonest, but you have to admit, creatively crafty, as well. I don’t recommend the use of clickers as pure attendance-takers. It’s just too easy to get it wrong.
One of the big dangers of clickers is forgetting that a student is always part of a larger ecosystem. It’s heartbreaking when students with not a lot of cash to go around are asked to buy two or three different clicker remotes, each made by a different company, because three of their instructors want to use clickers, but there’s no one standard model they’re sharing. If your campus doesn’t have a single standard, it’s worth having this conversation at the departmental level at the very least, and decide as a group which device you’re going to ask students purchase. At least this way, if they’re majoring in your discipline, they can keep using the same device for all the courses in your department for the duration of their degree. It’s definitely worth figuring out what the dominant system on campus is, and sticking to that if it’s at all possible.
But what’s the future of this device? The truth is, any smart phone, tablet or laptop computer can do what a clicker remote can do. In fact, an actual computing device can do much more: a student’s own phone, tablet or laptop can allow text input as well, and doesn’t require anyone to buy anything they don’t already have. Instead of special clicker software, you might just use an online form that gets generated inside your course management system, or it might be an app students can download. Personally, I’d rather see universities go out of their way to help students get a really great smart phone for cheap with a terrific and low-cost data plan and then have instructors build courses on the presumption smart devices are available for use by each student in their lecture. That way we could build even better interaction inside a lecture, with even more accountability.
But in the end, clickers are just a fancy show of hands. If you wanted to go super low tech instead of high tech, you can pass out a stack of coloured construction paper, five colours per student, and ask them to raise a colour to answer a multiple-choice question. That would achieve essentially the same result. Sure, you don’t get the exact number of A answers versus D answers in a spreadsheet, but in terms of finding a muddiest point or getting a general sense of what the class thinks, which really are the best uses of these devices, you’ll certainly get that information with simple pieces of construction paper. And so will your class, without ever switching on a phone or firing up a remote control.
With clickers, laptops, phones or even just raised hands, in the end, if it’s the approach, technique, or technology that meets your goals, that’s always the right answer.
That’s it for this episode. Do you use clickers in your classroom? How has it worked out for you? Let me know by posting a comment at the bottom of this podcast’s page at University Affairs dot CA. Until next time, I’m Rochelle Mazar.